8 August 2009

The essence of thought and interaction....

There's an interesting piece over here at The Atlantic (a site i've never visited before today, though thanks to Bill Harris for pointing it out).

It's basically some thoughts on how the net and connected world is affecting our reasoning, knowledge and social interactions. I don't massively agree with some of the things he talks about and i feel like the whole thing is a bit over-wrought and (ironically for me) wordy when it could be more concise.

I think the two things that stick out for me in what he writes about are attention spans vs interest and social interaction vs interaction with machines. Starting off with the latter (since i think it's easier to talk about): he brings up 2001 as an allegory to how we might evolve due to our 'skimming' nature of interaction with knowledge and society through the internet and new media.

In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

This may be a valid interpretation of the film's underlying tones.... but this example struck a completely different chord with me. Dealing with machines instead of people tends to lead you to emotional detachment. I don't think that Dave and his co-pilot act like machines because they have become socially mechanical, rather they act like machines because they are dealing with machines and while you can still get angry and mad at a machine, ultimately it does no good. Your choices are, deal with the problem.... or "Smash, Hulk! Smash!". I think i know which one seems more cultured and socially advanced.

For intelligent machines, as with HAL, the process is mirrored. We are beings of emotion and thus any intelligent machine will try to appeal to our emotions, to better understand and also to manipulate us as any baby would do. It's a natural process and while they may never achieve true emotional connection and understanding, any intelligent machine would be at odds with its own intelligence if it didn't try to interact with us on an emotional level. In my opinion, HAL's apparent emotional pleas are just another manifestation of manipulation and engagement with his human co-habitants.

On a bit of a tangent:
I can't imagine the amount of good that text conversations have done for discussing hot-button topics... certainly for myself, i find it's infinitely easier to approach a difficult situation or topic on the internet than it is in real life conversations because, even though emotions can still become high and people can get riled, you have the time to compose yourself and also your arguments. With a little patience you can be more verbose, coherent and persuasive than you could ever be in the middle of a conversation. Of course, there's certainly the argument to be had that you should be working towards being able to behave like this in verbal arguments - the age-old heritage of debating is the spirit of this notion incarnate - but not everyone can do this. A small amount of detachment is good for the soul, it appears. Too much, and yes we are in danger of becoming his worst fears - unable to socially interact without a 'mediator' medium. I don't think we'll ever get to that stage though.... there are too many checks and balances brought about by our continued reproduction cycles. If we ever stop reproducing and become immortal then all bets are off.....

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

It's funny, i thought i felt something familiar a few years ago.... but then it went away. Intelligence-wise i felt the most smart and sharp at the age of 16, i felt like i could do anything then and certainly my grades felt from my perspective to be easier to achieve than anything since. I've also felt what i thought was a shortening of my attention span and have even commented on it here in this blog.... but i still feel that what i said then still stands - we have more choice and so utilise it. Certainly, i am no less capable of sitting through a long stretch of education or entertainment..... but i what i often find is that knowledge-based articles - whether they be on the web or in print - do not always have the information i want as deeply as i want it. This sometimes leads to tangents in my reading which, yes do not always lead back to the original article, but then you have to ask the question: Why was i reading the article in the first place? I don't think that there are many times that i've been interested in the bulk of the article and flicked away to some other site or pastime for no reason..... most of the time small jumps to reference media (for further clarification of a word, phrase, object or notion) tend to be the norm - i just can't know everything all the time and many articles assume a certain level of competence or base knowledge on their particular subject. It's only fair. I don't expect a paper on the electron migration through a piezo electric material to cover all the fundamentals in the same way a textbook on the basics of semiconductor types would.... but then i still need to fill the gaps in my knowledge (or reaffirm them) to be able to truly understand the paper in question. The internet has enabled both the acquisition and understanding of knowledge much easier and at the same time made it more difficult to discern what we hold to be true and what is, to all intents and purposes, a joke or 'grief' (i.e. false or 'bad' information).

If we truly wish to know something then we will sit on hot coals to do so.... if we have nothing but a passing interest or we really want to know something else that we know is in easy reach then we will, more often than not, want to reach for that instead.